Toi Derricotte is an award-winning poet whose writings, though frequently autobiographical, treat universal subjects such as racism and identity in ways that are moving, painful, and illuminating. Her style is credited with an evocative simplicity reminiscent of Emily Dickinson, though it also contains the kind of expansive colloquial expression attributed to Walt Whitman. Derricotte is also known for treating sexual topics with candor, and for exploring the shadows that surround difficult and painful realities. “Her poems begin in ordinary experiences but she dissects the routine definitions supplied by society as a way towards making discoveries about what unsuspected resources the self actually contains,” wrote Jon Woodson in Contemporary Women Poets.
Derricotte was born in Hamtramck, Michigan in 1941. As a child, she spent time at her grandparents’ funeral home in Detroit, an experience that shaped much of her early work. As she told Contemporary Authors: “My fears of death were prominent in my early poems. In my first book, The Empress of the Death House (1978), that theme persists and is embodied in ‘The Grandmother Poems,' a group of poems about my early experiences at my grandparents' funeral home in Detroit.” Derricotte’s family life was marked by death, abuse, pain and racism—coupled with her Roman Catholic schooling and light skin, Derricotte often felt alienated and guilty. In her interview, Derricotte confided that: “As a black woman, I have been consistently confused about my 'sins,' unsure of which faults were in me and which faults were the results of others' projections.” She added that, “truthtelling in my art is also a way to separate my 'self' from what I have been taught to believe about my 'self,' the degrading stereotypes about black women.”
A reviewer in Publishers Weekly characterized Derricotte as a writer who “blends personal history, invention and reportage” in works that begin with a focus on the experiences of black women, and ultimately discuss various themes concerning identity. Derricotte's first books, including The Empress of the Death House and Natural Birth (1983), focus on gender, fertility, and race. Derricotte's third collection, Captivity (1990), considers the vestiges of slavery in the lives of contemporary African Americans, including the prevalence of violence in the family, and the continued abuses of racism within the society. Derricotte's fourth book of poetry, Tender (1997), won the 1998 Paterson Poetry Prize. The volume’s title poem is short and stark, associating the word itself with both meat and a certain quality of family life. In a preface to the volume, Derricotte notes that the seven sections of Tender emanate like the spokes of a wheel from the hub of this poem. Ellen Kaufman, reviewing the collection for Library Journal, highlighted Derricotte's dedication to the use of “plain language that does not settle for simplicity or cliche,” adding that “despite its raw and upsetting subject matter” Tender is extremely readable. Monica Dyer Rowe, writing in American Visions, similarly focused on the intimacy of Derricotte's poetic voice: “Reading Tender is like coming across another's journal and, despite feeling somewhat guilty . . . , being too mesmerized to put the book down.”
In fact, Derricotte's prose publication, The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey (1997), is comprised of selections from journals kept over the course of twenty years. At the focal point of these journals is the author's identity as a light-skinned black woman who is often mistaken for white, an issue Derricotte uses throughout her poetic oeuvre as a jumping off point for an inquiry into identity. Here, the author gathers moments from both her personal and her professional lives “that have caused her to examine her blackness and its impact on her understanding of herself and the world,” comments Lillian Lewis in Booklist. Derricotte's occasional choice to “pass” for white, as when she was attempting to buy a house in a predominantly white suburban neighborhood in New York, has engendered episodes of profound discomfort with herself, resulting in a type of spiritual malaise. The book won the 1998 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Derricotte also had an essay, “Beginning Dialogues,” published in Best American Essays 2006. Another collection of poetry, The Undertaker’s Daughter, was published in 2011.
Toi Derricotte received her B.A. from Wayne State University and an M.A. in English Literature from New York University. She has received the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Distinguished Pioneering of the Arts Award from the United Black Artists two Pushcart Prizes, , and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the Guggenheim, and the Maryland State Arts Council. In 1996, with poet Cornelius Eady, she founded Cave Canem, a writing workshop for African- American poets. In 2012, she was elected chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.
The poet Marilyn Hacker has said that Toi Derricotte’s poems are “honest, fine-honed, deceptively simple. . . deadly accurate, 'more merciless to herself than history’ [and] as unique as her point of view. And it is the specificity, the fine observation of that viewpoint...which makes it at once accessible and revelatory to readers, whatever their origins, whatever their preconceptions of the possibilities of poetry.”
Manpower Program, Detroit, MI, teacher, 1964-66; Farand School, Detroit, teacher of the mentally and emotionally retarded, 1966-68; Jefferson School, Teaneck, NJ, remedial reading teacher, 1969-70; New Jersey State Council on the Arts, poet in residence for Poet-in-the-Schools program, 1974-88, master teacher, 1984-88; Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA, associate professor of creative writing and minority literature, 1988-90; George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, Commonwealth Professor, 1990-91; University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, associate professor, 1991—. New York University, visiting professor, 1992; has served on the faculty of Squaw Valley Community of Writers, 1992, Suncoast Florida Writers' Conference, University of South Florida, 1993, and the Charleston Writers' Conference, College of Charleston, 1993. Guest poet and lecturer at numerous colleges and universities; featured poet in readings at more than one hundred theaters, museums, bookstores, and libraries. Educational consultant, Columbia University, 1979-82; founder of African American poet retreat, 1996—; implementer of workshop, "Freeing the Voice in a Racist Society," Goddard College, summer, 1997. Member of editorial staff, New York Quarterly, 1973-77.
- The Empress of the Death House, Lotus Press (Detroit), 1978.
- Natural Birth, Crossing Press (New York City), 198; Firebrand Books (Ann Arbor), 2000.
- Captivity, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1989.
- Tender, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.
- The Undertaker's Daughter, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011.
- (With Madeline Bass) Creative Writing: A Manual for Teachers (nonfiction), New Jersey State Council on the Arts, 1985.
- The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey (prose autobiography), Norton (New York City), 1997.
- Natural Birth, Firebrand Books, 2000.
- The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress, (sound recording, interview and reading by the author), 1998.
- (With Cornelius Eady) Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor), 2006.
Contributor to anthologies, including Ariadne's Thread: A Collection of Contemporary Women's Journals, edited by Lyn Lifshin, Harper, 1982; Extended Outlooks: The Iowa Review Collection of Contemporary Women Writers, edited by Jane Cooper and others, Macmillan, 1982; Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, edited by Barbara Smith, Persephone, 1982. Also contributor to An Introduction to Poetry, edited by Louise Simpson, 1986; Waltzing on the Water, Dell, and Early Ripening, edited by Marge Piercy. Contributor of poems to numerous periodicals, including Pequod, Iowa Review, Ironwood, Northwest Review; Poetry Northwest, American Poetry Review, Bread Loaf Quarterly, Massachusetts Review, Ploughshares, and Feminist Studies.
- Contemporary Women Poets, St. James Press (Detroit), 1998.
- American Book Review, summer, 1979.
- American Visions, February, 1998, p. 31.
- Black American Literature Forum, winter, 1983.
- Booklist, October 15, 1997, p. 380.
- Hudson Review, winter, 1983-84.
- Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 1997, p. 1351.
- lammos little review, winter, 1984.
- Library Journal, September 15, 1983; October 1, 1997, p. 105; November 1, 1997, p. 100; January, 1998, p. 104.
- New York Times Book Review, November 2, 1997, p. 45.
- Publishers Weekly, June 10, 1983; November 17, 1989; July 28, 1997, p. 69.
- 13th Moon, Volume 7, numbers 1-2, 1983.
- Village Voice, May 15, 1990.
- Womanews, July-August, 1983.
Poems By TOI DERRICOTTE
LIFE SPAN 1941–